The buddha with mood swings

I stand in the beautiful long corridor in Ananda temple and look at the huge happy smile on the face of the golden 10 metre high buddha. As I walk closer to him, I notice his expression has changed. The big happy smile is now a mindful expression, as though he is gently teaching me. As I walk right up to his base and look up, his expression is now sad. This buddha really has mood swings – or maybe I’ve just upset him?

It’s quite a freaky experience watching the expression change the first time. I see lots of people doing a double-take and then going back to the start and trying it again (and I do too). It’s a deliberate design feature on this buddha statue from the 12th century, and it’s pretty cool. I’m in Ananda temple in Bagan, Myanmar. It’s an unusual temple in a number of ways. It is built in the shape of a symmetrical cross, with four buddha statues in the middle, one at the end of each arm of the cross. In fact the North and South corridors both have identical buddhas with changing expressions, the buddhas in the east and west wings are many centuries newer and their expression does not change. There are also hundreds of other buddhas in little alcoves all over it’s walls. The only difference between the two original buddhas is that one is artificially lit, to make the statue shine a vivid gold, while the other is naturally lit through the temple design, and looks a much subtler colour. I definitely prefer the natural look.

A happy expression, lit naturally.


A mindful expression, lit naturally.


A sad expression, lit naturally.


A happy expression, lit artificially.


A mindful expression, lit artificially.


A sad expression, lit artificially.

Blissful Ballooning Over Beautiful Bagan

It is hard to imagine too many places that are better suited to a sunrise hot air balloon trip. In Bagan the 2200 temples and pagodas are spread across a small plain in the elbow of the Irrawaddy river. In the dry months it is flat, warm and calm.

The flight path starts to the north and had us float through old Bagan to land in the south. The balloon pilot keeps circling the basket around,without disturbing the balloon’s overall direction, so we all get to see in all directions in turn. We go up to 1.7 kms, and down to barely brushing the tops of palms.

 In the east, the sun is rising in a blaze of colour, and anything in front of it is silhouetted, but most of the temples are on, or to the west of, the flight path, so there wasn’t much to see directly into the sunrise.

 Look towards the west and the east facing sides of temples and pagodas are ablaze in the warmth of the new sun.

 Look to the North and all the home fires combine into dreamy hazy snakes of smoke across the landscape, and North East gave lovely pink and brown tones to the haze.

 Look south and it looks like a clear and sunny day, basking in a golden glow.


And to round it out, I have added a few shots of Bagan at sunset from a temple top.

Angkor temples without the crowds?

It’s the second day of the new year festivities, so we allow ourselves a sleep-in – departing for the far flung temples at the advanced hour of 7am. All the guide books talk about staying extra days, getting outside the “inner circle” of temples and escaping the crowds, and that is exactly what we are planning for today.

With hindsight, we should’ve taken the guide books with a grain of salt, but it doesn’t matter because we end up with a nice twist on the crowds. I should know by now that when popular guidebooks say “go here, get off the beaten track” then lots of other people will be doing the same thing.

And the crowds are definitely here, car loads and bus loads at every temple today, but for once we are completely outnumbered by the locals on holiday and its a great feeling. Because its the three day national New Year holiday, Cambodian families have gathered from across the country and are visiting their own history and temples in great numbers, often spreading blankets to have huge extended family picnics under the trees. And we, the hot sweaty fly-in tourists, are in the minority for a change, which makes the temples feel much less like open air museums than usual .

Banteay Srei, Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Banteay Srei, Angkor Wat, Cambodia

We make six temple stops today, which is a bit ambitious with our late start for the day, so we are a wee bit exhausted (heat stroke anyone?) by the end. Here’s my highlights of the day.

Kbal Spean – The River of a Thousand Lingas.

This site is an interesting change from the usual temples. It a 1.5km walk up through the valley to the riverbed at the top – its a gentle incline but made harder for uncoordinated people like me by  being a bit of a scramble over a rocky mountain goat track in parts.

I am a bit disappointed when I first see the carvings at the top, as they mainly look like a cobblestoned path. Duh! I eventually realise that these are the remaining bases of the thousand lingas (phallic symbols), and by the size of the bases they must’ve been impressively sized lingas. Now I guess its a case of a thousand eunuchs. We beat the crowds to the top and as we head back down, there are many families on the way up , easily carrying vast picnic supplies, politely laughing at the sweat running down our faces. We realise our driver may be a bit worn out from his New Years festivities when it takes us fifteen minutes to track him down fast asleep in a hammock.

Kbal Spean, Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Kbal Spean, Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Banteay Srei.

I love this beautiful small temple. Banteay Srei has the most intricate carvings, all in dusky rose stone. Its also incredibly popular and incredibly busy, its a continuous snake of people around the paths. However the layout makes it easy to get up close to all the beautiful carvings and get an uninterrupted view, negating any impact of the crowds.

The lack of shade is more of a problem, it’s still early morning and we are cooking! We finally find shade behind the temple, next to a local band playing under a tree. They are a poignant reminder of the recent past, as the band is a group of land mine victims and this is how they support themselves and other victims (and since the music is rather refreshing on a hot day, its not that hard for them to sell their CDs either.)



The Temple of Ta Som.

Back closer to the Angkor Thom complex we stop for a wander around Ta Som, a temple mainly known for its general state of dis-repair, and its classic strangler fig tree wrapped around an ancient ornate stone gate. All sensible people have retreated out of the midday sun by now, leaving a much emptier temple site to explore. I think I am on about my fourth litre of water by this stage. What I love about Ta Som is that it looks so decrepit, the stones toppling off each other and arches looking like they barely hold together. Its not an overgrown, ‘Indiana Jones slash your way through the undergrowth’ kind of environment – most of the vegetation has been cleared out, except for some bigger trees providing a nice level of shade, and the famous strangler fig of course, although it’s had some judicious pruning as well. But that does show off the fragility of the stonework quite well, so its a good compromise. And this temple has kids playing around today, which adds a nice sense of movement and colour.

We don’t last much longer after Ta Som, very happy with what we’ve seen, too worn out by heat and humidity to give the remaining temples their due, it’s definitely time to head back to a cool pool.

Return to the temples of Angkor Thom

Being surrounded by mysterious carved serene faces, scrambling through temple ruins held together by massive old tree roots, these are my favourite memories of my previous visit to Cambodian temples.

Sure, Angkor Wat is deservedly the star attraction, but it is the charm of the smaller temples in Angkor Thom that I am looking forward to experiencing again five years later.

The mysterious carved stone heads of the Bayon

Imagine being surrounded by 216 large carved stone heads, all smiling mysteriously, each one subtly different – that is the charm of the Bayon.

Depending on who you ask, the heads are images of the Buddhist god Avalokiteshara, or maybe they are King Jayavarman VII., the ruler who presided over the building of much of Angkor’s grandeur. Either way, they have a killer smile.

the Bayan 2005
the Bayan 2005

This is how I saw them the first time. The Bayon hides its treasures well. On first approach it looks a bit nondescript, a rough pyramid of three tiers of big blocks of stone. And suddenly, when I’m in amongst it, I see the bas relief carvings depicting scenes of battles, daily life and even a circus, on the first tier.  I scramble up very steep stone stairs to the third tier, and find myself staring at these intriguing heads with their hint of a smile –  they face north, south, east and west, from 54 stone towers. The light catches different faces at different times of the day, I recommend going at sunrise, in the early morning light, while the crowds are still at Angkor Wat.

Ta Prohm – held together by the tree roots.

My other favourite temple is Ta Prohm, a photographers dream.  It’s not exactly off the beaten track, but the sight of crumbling walls intertwined with massive curling tree roots is spectacular. It’s also very accessible, with walkways to guide the visitors around, and to give everyone a turn to see the best corners. It can be a challenge of patience to frame up a camera shot and then wait, and wait, for that split second when there is a gap in the crowds to steal that shot through, but it’s surely worth the effort.

Five years ago I remember there being one pathway through the middle, and lots of unrestored areas off to both sides, some marked as out of bounds but now I notice a marked difference. There is an extensive network of wooden boardwalks circling through the site, this takes away any pretence that we are hard core explorers, but it also handles the volume of visitors better. I see one wall which has completely collapsed in the last five years, leaving the tree looking ready to topple over itself, which reinforces just how hard it is to balance keeping Ta Prohm in its popular “state of disrepair”, without it either collapsing completely under the weight of tourist numbers, or being renovated into a disney version of what it once was.
Do you have a favourite story or picture of the Bayon or Ta Prohm to share, did you visit many years ago and get to see a much less restored version?